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'The View' returns with new hosts -- and a barefoot Rosie O'Donnell

'The View' returns with new hosts -- and a barefoot Rosie O'Donnell
Whoopi Goldberg, Nicolle Wallace, Rosie Perez and Rosie O'Donnell. (Lou Rocco / ABC)

"The View" returned for its 18th season Monday with a new set, new logo, new executive producer and mostly new panel of co-hosts -- all part of a much-hyped overhaul at the long-running ABC show. But as far as makeovers go, this one was relatively subtle.

"We're going to try a lot of new stuff," promised moderator Whoopi Goldberg, the only co-host to return from last season, after the retirement of creator Barbara Walters and the firing of co-hosts Sherri Shepherd and Jenny McCarthy. "Some of it will work and some of it won't, but the thing that will never change is great conversation with great women."

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She was joined on the shiny gray, turquoise and orange set by incoming panelists Rosie Perez and Nicolle Wallace, and Rosie O'Donnell, who is back on the program after leaving under acrimonious circumstances seven years ago.

The episode opened with a bit in which each of the co-hosts greeted Barbara Walters, seated on a throne in a nod to the journalist's continued influence over the show. (Walters was there in more than just spirit, watching from the green room and mingling with the audience after the show.)

But it was O'Donnell who loomed the largest over the broadcast. The comedian, who recently lost 50 pounds thanks to a vertical sleeve gastrectomy, made herself conspicuously comfortable from the get-go, taking off her patent leather clogs and sitting cross-legged on her armchair -- all to help her sciatica, she said.

During commercial breaks, she took questions from the audience and joked about her recent heart attack, her children and her infamous clashes with former co-host Elisabeth Hasselbeck.

In the "hot topic" segments, which focused on Baltimore Ravens player Ray Rice, O'Donnell lived up to her reputation for speaking her mind, suggesting that abuse occurs because professional football players are encouraged and rewarded for being violent.

"It would be wonderful if they were able to separate the violence of their job with the violence in their life," she said, "but I don't think that's how human brains work. And believe me I don't excuse any violence towards anyone, but I do understand how a guy who knocks people over and pushes them down for a living and gets cheered might do that in his private life, even though it's wrong."

O'Donnell noted that she's generally able to separate the work of a public figure like Chris Brown from his or her personal troubles -- the notable exception being Woody Allen.

"I haven't seen a Woody Allen movie since the initial allegations came out," she said. (If Walters, who has defended the filmmaker in the past, were still co-hosting, here's where things might have gotten testy.)

O'Donnell's return largely overshadowed the debut of entirely new co-hosts Wallace and Perez, but they managed to get a few words in edgewise.

"I'm a Republican. Let's just get that out of the way," Wallace said by way of introduction. A former communications director for President George W. Bush and advisor on Sen. John McCain's 2008 presidential campaign, Wallace so far seems to be getting along just fine with her more left-of-center co-hosts, who pried her for gossip about Sarah Palin.

Wallace was obliging, sharing that her relationship with Palin broke down irretrievably after the candidate's botched interview with Katie Couric, without being indiscreet (or revealing anything that hadn't already been divulged in "Game Change.") She also shared a humanizing behind-the-scenes story about encouraging Vice President Dick Cheney to grant an interview after the infamous 2006 hunting mishap in which he accidentally shot a friend in the face.

While she took a back seat for much of the broadcast, Wallace seemed to come alive when discussing Hillary Clinton's possible presidential bid and the difficulty of wooing voters in Iowa.

For someone known for playing brash characters in films like "Do the Right Thing" and "White Men Can't Jump," Perez made a surprisingly muted debut. Put on the spot by O'Donnell, she defended her love of professional boxing, and in particular her admiration for Floyd Mayweather Jr., despite his history of domestic abuse. And in a segment called "Ro or Ro?" specifically designed to distinguish the actress from "the other Rosie," Perez revealed herself to be a kung fu aficionado and Beyonce fan.

The episode closed with a tribute to the late Joan Rivers, in lieu of a celebrity guest. Broadway star Kristin Chenoweth sang a tearjerking version of "Borrowed Angels," and O'Donnell and Goldberg introduced a montage of highlights from the late comedian's 34 appearances on the show.

"Joan always knew how to leave people laughing, and nobody did it like she did," Goldberg said.

Twitter: @MeredithBlake

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